Detroit is unlike any other city I’ve ever visited. As much as I’d read about it and watched documentaries online, nothing prepared me to experience it firsthand. As you explore Detroit’s nooks and crannies, it’s impossible not to feel burdened with a heavy sense of hopelessness and sadness. There seem to be more abandoned homes than lived in ones. Likewise, with local businesses. There are six lane streets with only one or two cars driving on them at any given time. Stop lights are turned into four way stops as with such little traffic, it doesn’t make sense to keep them running. In some areas, the city doesn’t pay for the street lights to be on at night. The locals call it Zombie Land and they’re right, as Detroit is apocalyptic in nature.
Despite the urban blight, there are causes for hope. Community projects abound, be it urban farms, programs for at risk youth, outdoor art installations and an ever growing food movement. Creatives are flocking there in great numbers and in some ways, it reminded me of my beloved Berlin. This was the Detroit I came to see and the one I wanted to get to know.
One of these bright spots is the Heidelberg Project. A huge outdoor art installation that spans a couple of city blocks – it offers up quirky, fun and whimsical pieces. Think houses adorned with hundreds of records or decorated from top-to-bottom with stuffed animals. Other pieces are more political such as the pink car sunk into the ground, signifying the death of the auto industry in a city that once was the ultimate symbol of the American dream.
Created in 1986 by Tyree Guyton and his grandfather, the duo sought to turn their poor, crime ridden, lower east side neighbourhood into a welcoming place where people could enjoy the art and locals could take pride in the unique project that has captured the attention worldwide. The artist even involved several children from the neighbourhood to develop his constantly evolving outdoor space.
The Heidelberg Project has seen it’s fair share of controversy over the years. Twice city officials have demolished some of the homes after neighbours complained they were a haven for rats and posed fire and other safety hazards.
In fact just a few weeks ago one of the homes was set on fire by an arsonist destroying the Obstruction of Justice house. They’re slowly cleaning it up and have launched a Reclaiming the Canvas campaign to raise funds and build something new in it’s place.
There are those who criticize the Heidelberg project, saying that they don’t live up to their mission “to change lives and communities” through their arts driven programming. They point out that the surrounding neighbourhood is still poor and the conditions have not improved. Yet the executive director Jenenne Whitfield referenced this in a Huffington post article about the recent Heidelberg fire:
Many of the young folks in our community experience a life that is at times inhumane. I remember a young man incarcerated at a prison where I volunteered saying to me, “There were eight houses on my block and five of them were crack houses. I grew up thinking that this was what life was all about.” While in jail, he discovered a talent for writing poetry. He is one of our redeemed and recently held his wedding on Heidelberg Street. Today, he is doing well. This potential was one of the primary reasons for the creation of the Heidelberg Project. Through this work, we expose young people to all facets of art and they have a chance to meet people from around the world. Armed with these tools, they can make better choices. We do our best, but the problem is obviously bigger than us.
I for one have respect for the artist and the fact that he’s been able to turn his art into an internationally recognized symbol of hope and good. I admire that he’s been able to transform the lives of kids living in his community. He even manages to attract people to come and visit a poor neighbourhood of Detroit. Now that’s something!
The Heidelberg Project
3600 Heidelberg St Detroit, MI 48207